JUPITER, Fla. -- In the early 1960s, if you were foolish enough to venture by boat too far up the Loxahatchee River from the Jupiter Inlet here on the coast north of West Palm Beach, you might get your head shot off by a man named Trapper Nelson. Florida's history is full of renegades, magnates, developers, explorers, and visionaries, from Ponce de Leon to Henry Flagler, Julia Tuttle, and Meyer Lansky. Yet in a state of colorful characters, none is quite the color of Nelson, the flamboyant, 6-foot-4-inch "Tarzan of the Loxahatchee."
Born Victor Nostokovich in Trenton, N.J., he settled on the northwest fork of the river in the 1930s and lived off the land, skinning raccoons and cooking tortoise and gopher stew. Reborn as Trapper Nelson, he accumulated 800 acres of land and built a series of log cabins and Seminole shelters, hand hewn from slash pine at his campsite.
Today, within the boundaries of Jonathan Dickinson State Park, just north of Jupiter, you can safely navigate the Loxahatchee to the historic site where Nelson lived and worked (in fact, the only access is on the river), and amble through his well-preserved structures among tropical gardens planted with guava, wild almond, Surinam cherry, and Java plum.
Boating excursions to Trapper Nelson's were popular in the 1950s when, to make money, Nelson persuaded boat captains to bring Palm Beach socialites (including the movie star Gary Cooper) upriver to Hobe Sound to visit his "zoo" of captive bobcats, raccoons, possums, and snakes, and to watch him wrestle alligators. By the 1960s, paranoid that others were out to steal his land, Nelson put gates and dams along the river, encouraging the fear that if you got too close, well . . . He died in mysterious circumstances in 1968, of a gunshot wound to the stomach that was ruled a suicide but has remained a topic of gossip and speculation ever since.
The Nelson site, however, is only one part of the lure of the Loxahatchee, Florida's only federally- and state-designated "wild and scenic" river. Its name derives from European settlers' mispronunciation of a Seminole word meaning "Turtle Creek," and it is one of the few undeveloped rivers remaining in southeast Florida. Winding through various ecosystems, as freshwater meets salt from the ocean inlet, the river is home to more than 140 species of birds, and a destination for the birding crowd.
If you rent a canoe in Jupiter at River Bend Park, it's an eight-mile paddle to the dock at Dickinson where Canoe Outfitters will fetch you at the end of the day. Along the way, you pass beneath a tall canopy of cypress trees hundreds of years old, a habitat for otters, turtles, and alligators. Beyond Trapper Nelson's, we found pond apples, live oak, and maples, festooned with dripping Spanish moss and bright bromeliads.
Alternately, shorten the outing by starting at Dickinson. Here the tidal estuary is mainly saltwater, so you head out through red mangroves where we spotted blue herons, cooter turtles, and yellow-crown night herons. It is three miles from the dock to Trapper Nelson's place, and for time purposes (it closes at 5 p.m.), the park prefers you stop there and head back; thus, you miss the cypress canopy on this route.
If canoeing isn't your sport, the park offers a two-hour tour on the Loxahatchee Queen II, a 44-passenger covered vessel that slowly plies the river. A Coast Guard-licensed captain provides a running commentary on the flora and fauna of the Loxahatchee, and gives an informative 25-minute tour of Trapper Nelson's camp.
Dickinson State Park also has myriad nature trails for hiking and miles of off-road and paved bicycle trails. It's also the home of Hobe Mountain, where from the observation tower you can see the entire park and across the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic. New Englanders may chortle at using the term "mountain" for a sand dune that's 86 feet above sea level, but in fact it's one of the highest points in south Florida. So mountain it is. The summit is reached after a brief stroll up a boardwalk trail through fragrant sand pine scrub.
But what's a trip to Florida without a day at the beach? (Or two, or three?) Visitors won't be disappointed. The ocean beach in Jupiter is, for the most part, undeveloped, at least compared with its neighbors to the south in Palm Beach County. There are lifeguards, picnic areas, rest rooms, grills, and little else to distract you from the pages of your newest novel or your nap.
Swimming is also possible in the protected waters of Jupiter Inlet, where the Loxahatchee meets the sea. This is where you find the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, a red brick tower built in 1860 and still in operation. Tours are available, and the visitors center has a 15-minute video on the history of the structure.
Also, scuba enthusiasts wax ecstatic about the 10 miles of reef that attract an abundance of marine animals including five species of turtles, moray eels, goliath grouper, amberjack, and barracuda.
If you're looking for the quaint downtown center of Jupiter, there is none. There is no downtown at all, but rather a series of intersecting roads with strip malls scattered here and there. When Joe Richards moved here from Boston three years ago, he found it confusing.
"I told my friends I was 'going downtown.' And they said, 'Where?' "
A call to the Chamber of Commerce provoked a similar response. "A downtown? You'd have to go to Palm Beach. We're more of a municipality."
Jupiter was incorporated as a town in 1925, emerging out of the 19th-century Seminole Indian Wars, the Civil War, and years of early pioneer settlers, black and white. But 80 years later and still with no center, where can you go to eat?
Good food here is in unlikely places. In a strip mall off US 1, Little Moir's Food Shack is a casual storefront where you can be sure the outside benches are full of hungry diners waiting to be seated. It's worth the wait. The interior -- part bar, part restaurant with the feel of an island hideaway -- has fresh seafood with Caribbean and Asian ingredients like coconut, chili, wasabi, pineapple, honey, avocado, crispy garlic, and lime. At first, the menu seems simple, with about five appetizers, five salads, and the same number of sandwiches and main dishes. All the choices are tempting, though, so it's hard to choose between, say, the tuna basil roll with wasabi aioli, the coconut and curry marinated shrimp with spicy fruit salad, and the blackened fish with coconut rice, cucumber slaw, and melon-pineapple salad.
One last thing: You may recall that Florida got hit by a number of hurricanes this fall, and indeed Jupiter was in the direct path of first Frances and, 22 days later, Jeanne. Both hurricanes caused quite a bit of damage to trees and homes, and caused power outages for days.
Manny Perez, assistant manager at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, said the worst is over, and that cleanup has progressed quite well.
"We're open!" Perez exclaimed. "Trapper Nelson's is open, and so are the hiking trails. There's still ongoing work in the park -- volunteers are cleaning up trees and removing them -- and one of our two campsites is closed. But the river campground, with 45 sites, is open. Also, we're working to get Trapper Nelson's on the National Register of Historic Sites, so we can restore it even more. So come down and visit."
Necee Regis is a freelance writer who lives in Boston and Miami Beach. She can be reached at email@example.com.